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US Visa Ban And The Future Of Nigerian Elections

Shuaib Shuaib writes on the recent visa ban the US government has placed on some Nigerian political actors said to have undermined the country’s democratic process in any way.

The United States government had in February said it would consider placing visa restrictions on individuals who undermine the process or are involved in organising electoral violence in Nigeria / Photo credit: duisaf.com
The United States government had in February said it would consider placing visa restrictions on individuals who undermine the process or are involved in organising electoral violence in Nigeria / Photo credit: duisaf.com

It is only a matter of time before names of politicians and prominent actors in the 2019 general elections who have fallen foul of the ever watchful eyes of the US State Department, becomes public knowledge.

Till then, all eyes will be on federal and state government officials, key figures within the security organisations and even senior staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission, to see who among them can’t visit the United States of America.

That’s all Nigerians can do. Watch, wait and speculate on what comes next after the U.S State Department announced it had placed visa restrictions on a number of individuals who, through their actions undermined the democratic process during this year’s general elections.

So far, the only revelations towards any form of accountability and what went wrong during the elections are coming from proceedings of the presidential election tribunal and the various state tribunals.

And at the tribunals, election violence, voter intimidation and vote buying are not featuring in the arguments of the losing parties.

The opposition PDP and its presidential candidate at the election, Atiku Abubakar, have mostly built their case around the electronic transmission of election results, which they believe shows the party won the contest.

Yet, at the presidential, governorship and National Assembly elections, there were recorded instances of violence that led to the suspension of elections in places like Rivers States.

There were clear attempts at voter intimidation and disenfranchisement in states like Lagos. Also add the suspension and subsequent trial of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen weeks before the elections, eliciting an outcry from a number of foreign embassies including that of the United States of America.

If any of these sanctioned individuals tomorrow emerges as a major contender for the Nigerian presidency, how will the US respond? Any inconsistency will only raise skepticism about the effectiveness of visa bans as a way of curbing election violence and improving the electoral process

All these obviously contributed to the outcome of the elections and how they will be determined at the tribunals.

To have gone as far as placing visa restrictions on a number of individuals it believes culpable in undermining the electoral process, the US must have conducted its own investigations into what transpired before and during the elections in the corridors power.

It must also be certain of the guilt of those individuals it just sanctioned and to make that determination, its investigation must have very intrusive in the internal workings of government.

The statement announcing the sanctions by the US government is relatively vague. This makes it near impossible to know the scope of the investigation it carried out in coming to the conclusion it has.

There is also no indication of the category and number of individuals the U.S has chosen to sanction.

We don’t know if people sanctioned are two, three or more than a dozen. But virtually every key institution in the country was involved in the electoral process.

Even without knowing who has made the US list of sanctioned individuals and the acts committed in undermining the democratic process, the first to react has been Atiku Abubakar.

He released a statement saying the visa restrictions imposed on yet to be identified individuals, is a vindication of his party’s position that the presidential election was rigged in favour of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Yet, the United States, in announcing the restrictions emphatically said they had not targeted the Buhari government. The timing of the announcement and the targeting of individuals instead of the government also suggests the State Department believes the outcome of the elections has been settled and it is already looking ahead.

That is to say how the presidential election tribunal turns out is predictable or has even been predetermined. Considering the position the US ambassador, Stewart Syminton, took after the suspension of Walter Onnoghen, that could very well be a major consideration in placing visa restrictions on those who they have identified to have undermined the electoral process.

It is not hard to imagine that one or two of the sanctioned individuals were antagonists and rivals in the politics of Rivers State.

Before the elections, a number of states were flagged as flash points for possible violence and Rivers didn’t disappoint.

The use of the military in elections has always been controversial. It proved even more so during the presidential and governorship elections in Rivers.

In fact, elections there turned deadly claiming a number of lives including those of military personnel. What the military had to contend with were armed political thugs.

But if the U.S looked towards the state, who has it held responsible for the breakdown of law and order?

Has it restricted itself to political leaders or have top military officers also been placed on a visa ban? But beyond security personnel, even traditional institutions were actively involved in the elections.

It is no secret that Emir Muhammad Sanusi in Kano and Oba Rilwan Akiolu of Lagos had their preferred candidates at presidential and governorship elections.

But it was not their passionate pleas or partisan positions that influenced voting patterns.

It was what politicians they stood with or against and INEC officials did. And no one can pretend that there wasn’t wide spread and well-orchestrated voter intimidation of people from the southeast in Lagos.

In Kano, they were simply denied access to the ballot or their names were missing. In the long run, voter disenfranchisement is not sustainable in any part of the country.

To have gone as far as placing visa restrictions on a number of individuals it believes culpable in undermining the electoral process, the US must have conducted its own investigations into what transpired before and during the elections in the corridors power

But there is no denying they had an impact on the elections. The question is whether all these were orchestrated from the top, at the federal level or were masterminded by politicians in the states and who the U.S has chosen to hold responsible.

In the July 23, 2019 statement, the U.S said the visa restrictions were not directed at the Nigerian people or the newly elected government.

The ban, it said was a reflection of the Department of State’s commitment to working with the Nigerian government to realise its expressed commitment to end corruption and strengthen democracy, accountability, and respect for human rights.

It also claimed to be a steadfast supporter of Nigerian democracy.

But how reliable is it? If any of these sanctioned individuals tomorrow emerges as a major contender for the Nigerian presidency, how will the U.S respond?

Any inconsistency will only raise skepticism about the effectiveness of visa bans as a way of curbing election violence and improving the electoral process.

And it showed that inconsistency in the lead up to the 2019 presidential election.

Till date, the only publicly known politician to have had a visa restriction placed on him was former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

Even though his own ban was to protect the U.S from corrupt activities and not in support of Nigeria’s democracy, still the US lifted the ban the moment Atiku became a major contender for Nigeria’s top job.

The inability of the PDP candidate to visit the U.S featured prominently in the election campaigns.

And when the restriction was lifted on Atiku weeks before the election, it came across as an endorsement. So, in the end, all the US succeeded in doing was insert itself right into Nigerian politics.

The whole essence of placing these sanctions on the unnamed individuals who were supposedly complicit in corrupting the electoral process or instigating violence is to deter repeat occurrences, either by the said individuals or by others.

On its own, Nigeria cannot investigate electoral violence and fraud. That would consume virtually every high profile politician and take partisan wrangling to a whole level, even raise ethnic tensions

With 200 million people and high stakes politics of Nigeria, that purpose is defeated as long as their identities remain hidden.

Even if these are people have no future political ambitions, they will simply be replaced by other persons who are not burdened by the weight of U.S sanctions and observation.

And in a country where a good number of politicians genuinely believe that the end justifies the means that cycle of violence just continues.

On its own, Nigeria cannot investigate electoral violence and fraud. That would consume virtually every high profile politician and take partisan wrangling to a whole level, even raise ethnic tensions.

The closest the country will get to accountability is the U.S visa restrictions. Nigerians were witnesses to the violence and intimidation during the elections.

But being able to put faces and names to the puppeteers who used the system to their advantage, will show them the U.S stands with the people and is a true supporter of Nigerian democracy, otherwise the sanctions will have no meaningful impact on the prevailing ‘do or die’ politics.

Tope Fasua was the presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP)/ in the last general elections / Photo Credit: Tope Fasua

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